Off Duty

July 22, 2018/Mark 6:30-34, 53-56


Finally, it is the weekend.  You’ve spent the last five – or six – days toiling away, working for just this moment.  A day off.  Time for yourself.  Time for a little rest and relaxation.

You’ve earned it.  If you’re like the average American, you put in close to 40 hours over the last seven days.  Or more than 50, if you’re like four out of ten employees in the United States.  Or maybe your schedule is like the two-out-of-ten high achieving Type-A folk out there, who regularly put in more than 60 hours a week.[1]

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those of you working full time enjoyed a bit more than three hours of free time each weekday.  Eight hours (or more) working; eight hours (or less!) sleeping; five hours cooking, cleaning, mowing and weeding, and caring for children or other family; three hours you could call your own.

No wonder you’re tired.

When I was growing up, I remember Sundays as the most boring day of the week.  Mornings were devoted to Sunday school and church, but once the lunch was eaten and the dishes cleared away, the house would settle into a quiet never heard during the week.  My parents would sink into long afternoon naps, Mama in bed and Daddy stretched out on the couch.

My brother and I were left to – quietly – entertain ourselves.

I couldn’t understand why they would waste the day that way.  There was so much to do!  Not shopping or catching up on chores – the stores were all closed and no one did chores on Sunday.  But what about taking a drive, or visiting family and friends, or reading a good book, or anything other than sleeping?  I didn’t realize then that by Sunday afternoon, following a long week of long hours working – my father as an electrician, my mother managing the household – all they craved was an afternoon of Sabbath rest.

In our reading from Mark this morning, we see God’s affirmation of this holy time of Sabbath rest in a very human, incarnational story of a very tired Jesus and his exhausted disciples.  The disciples had been out in the mission field teaching, healing, and casting out demons.  Jesus, no doubt, had been busy in their absence.  All of them were tired.  “Come away … and rest awhile,” Jesus urges them.

I picture Jesus packing his disciples into a minibus and taking off for a small cabin back in the mountains.  Stunning views, no phone or internet service, no interruptions.

But somehow the crowds were able to anticipate their destination.  By the time they arrived, the crowds were there to greet them.

Now how excited are you when your boss calls you while you’re away on vacation?  How thrilled are you when you get home at the end of a long day, only to be called back in to deal with some emergency that only you can solve?  How happy are you when your time away, your personal time, your R&R, is disrupted by the mundane or even extraordinary demands of life?

We expect Jesus to respond as we would under those circumstances.  I’ll deal with this later, we think.  I’ll call you in the morning.  I’ll handle the problem when I’m back at work.

But that is not what Jesus does.  “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

And later – after he feeds five thousand people and walks on water – when Jesus again tries to step away from the crowds, he is met by crowds of people begging to be healed.  “They press against him.  They plead.  They beg to touch the fringe of his robe and receive healing.  Jesus’ response?  Once again, his response is compassion.  ‘All who touched him were healed.’”[2]

Think about this for a moment.  Jesus and the disciples are tired.  They are spent after their extended mission work.  They need time to rest and reflect and just eat.  But every time they try to retreat, they find themselves facing swarms of people who need … something.  Care, concern, compassion.  “The German word for compassion is mitleid – quite literally, ‘with-suffering.’  We think [compassion] a synonym for pity.  Pity is something you can manage from afar – at a once-remove!  Not compassion.  You do not have compassion, really, unless you suffer with those to whom you refer.  The precondition for compassion is unconditional solidarity with the ones for whom you feel it.”[3]

Jesus, unapologetic about his need for rest and solitude, did not let his weariness blunt his compassion.  We may try to avoid the midnight call by telling ourselves that “nothing urgent is at stake.  Everything can wait.  After all, I’m not the last stop, am I?  Not much depends on me.”[4]  But Jesus realized “that he was the last stop for those aching, desperate crowds – those sheep without a shepherd.  He practiced a kind of balance that allowed his love for others, his own inner hungers, and the urgency of the world’s needs to exist in productive tension.”[5]

So how are we supposed to honor both our very real need for rest and the world’s very real need for care?  “As recipients of [Christ’s] compassion, we contradict our own being – our ‘new being’ – if we fail to enact the same compassion [toward] others.”[6]  “While God calls us to renewal through communal practices of Sabbath keeping, Eucharist, and theological reflection, God also pledges to sustain us when the needs of others interrupt our plans for retreat.”[7]

One commentator notes that this passage offers us “glimpses of Jesus’ human life.”

His need to withdraw, his desire for solitary prayer, his physical hunger, his sleepiness, his inclination to hide. These glimpses take nothing away from Jesus’ divinity; they enhance it, making it richer and all the more mysterious. They remind [us] that the doctrine of the Incarnation truly is Christianity’s best gift to the world. God – the God of the whole universe – hungers, sleeps, eats, rests, withdraws, and grieves. In all of these mundane but crucial ways, our God is like us. Our God rests.[8]

Certainly, balance between our own needs and those of the world remains the ideal, but it won’t always be possible.  “Sometimes, we will have to ‘err.’  We’ll have to bend out of balance.  If that happens, what should we do?  If this week’s Gospel story is our example, then the answer is clear.  Err on the side of compassion.  Jesus did.”[9]

[1] Maurie Backman, “Here’s How Many Hours the Average American Works Per Year,” The Motley Fool, Dec 17, 2017

[2] Debie Thomas, “Rest a While,” 15 July 2018, journeywithjesus.net

[3] Douglas John Hall, Feasting on the Word B/3, 262

[4] Thomas

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hall, 264

[7] Karen Marie Yust, Feasting on the Word B/3, 264

[8] Thomas

[9] Ibid.

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